Theater Review: Three Small Irish Masterpieces
NEW YORK—No need to leave Manhattan to find a true slice of Irish culture, from blarney to soaring poetic language: Three evocative one-acts can be presently seen on the intimate stage of the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre, downstairs at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
Director Charlotte Moore has cannily linked consecutively the comedic “The Pot of Broth” (1903), co-written by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, with Lady Gregory’s serious political study “The Rising of the Moon” (1907), and John Millington Synge’s heartbreaking “Riders to the Sea” (1904). The plays unravel smoothly, with only brief musical interludes to indicate their separateness.
The noted playwrights were all part of the Irish Literary Renaissance, which helped to foster a strong sense of national identity in the late 19th and early 20th century.
In “The Pot of Broth,” a hungry tramp (David O’Hara) sneaks into a cottage hoping to find a morsel of food. Learning that the place is the home of stingy Sibby Connelly (Clare O’Malley) and her husband John (Colin Lane), he is at first disheartened. But the plucked chicken Sibby enters with whets his appetite and his inventiveness.
He approaches the couple with a seemingly ordinary stone and claims the stone has magical powers: It can turn plain water into a delicious broth. And he sets about to prove his claim.
Into simmering water, in addition to the stone, he dips a small herb, a nearby onion, some meal, a hambone Sibby was saving for a grander purpose, and with a final thrust of the chicken, the Tramp invites Sibby to take a taste.
Sibby enthusiastically exclaims that the broth is delicious! Is this stone truly magical? Or has she been seduced by the visitor’s charm? It’s hard to know. In any case, Sibby pleads for the stone to be hers. And, wonder of wonders, the generous tramp obliges.
Surely it’s a win-win situation. The tramp departs with some broth, a bottle of whiskey, and the slyly grabbed chicken. And Sibby and hubby have the magical stone, and a delicious meal for the parish priest who begins to head their way. One can only trust that the stone will continue to do its work.
In “The Rising of the Moon,” at a dark quayside, a sergeant (Lane) is on the lookout for an escaped political prisoner. To catch him would mean a reward of the enormous sum of 100 pounds, plus a promotion.
A ragged man (Adam Petherbridge) approaches and tries to get past the sergeant. But the sergeant prevents him. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game of clever psychology on the ragged man’s part, for it’s clear that he is the one being sought.
Undercurrents of Anglo-Irish relations pervade this piece. Although he surface of the play is somewhat slight, it is the subtext that grabs one’s interest.
Arguably, the most compelling offering of the evening is J.M. Synge’s “Riders to the Sea.” Set on Inishmaan, one of the Aran Islands (where Synge spent a good deal of time), it’s the tragic telling of the hard life the inhabitants, who must make their living from the sea—the harsh, unyielding sea.
The matriarch of this family, Maurya (Terry Donnelly, in a rich and moving performance), awaits the arrival of one of her sons, Michael, from his travels on the sea. But the daughters of the house, played by Clare O’Malley and Jennifer McVey, know that Michael is already dead. They have proof by means of some of his garments that have been recovered.
But they cannot bear to break the news to Maurya. Her last son, Bartley (Petherbridge) is about to embark on the task of selling one of their ponies, for which he must travel along the sea.
Maurya has had six sons. She’s already lost five of them, plus her husband and her husband’s father. So pained is she that she cannot honor Bartley with good wishes on his impending departure.
The ending is foretold. Maurya’s last line is delivered philosophically: “No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied.”
On view here is fine ensemble acting, with special kudos, as mentioned, for the superb Donnelly. Musical interludes are performed by Petherbridge, McVey, and O’Malley.
Supporting technical work is on the mark. There is James Morgan’s authentic-looking set, presenting, when needed, an Irish kitchen, a sinister waterfront, and a somber Irish cottage. Michael Gottlieb’s low lighting makes a fine accompaniment, as do Linda Fisher’s costumes: One can almost feel the roughness of the dark, homespun fabrics.
Under the artistic direction of Charlotte Moore and producing director Ciaran O’Reilly, the three plays are a fine contribution to Irish theatre and another feather in the cap of the Irish Repertory Theatre.
Three Small Irish Masterpieces
W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre
132 W. 22nd St.
Running Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: April 22
Diana Barth writes for several theater publications. She may be contacted at [email protected]